Building New Societies by Degrees – Change in Higher Education around the World

Emerging countries are rapidly accelerating attention to developing institutions of higher education. Common factors which must be considered in developing new universities and colleges include good governance, attention to purpose, focus and innovation, commitment to excellence in pedagogy and building true communities (virtual and real spaces), skilled leadership and management as well as available initial capital and design of a sustainble financial operating model. (full article)

In a world of rapid change where new economies are emerging, working and middle class families expect a better future for their children.  Accordingly, governments and private sector players are realizing that all levels of education from pre-kindergarten to graduate level must be augmented.  Countries with enormous populations like India and China must address these demands on a very substantial scale.  Countries with new found wealth from natural resources (Middle East, former Soviet Union and North Africa) are also being driven by their societies to improve educational access and standards.

These pressures are especially evident in the higher education sector where multiple models and players are emerging.  These include:

  • Expansion of existing universities and colleges (e.g. expansion of Aga Khan University from Pakistan into Kenya)
  • Development of off shore campuses by well-established universities in the developed world in emerging countries (e.g. Monash Malaysia Medical School from Australia, New York University in Abu Dhabi)
  • Establishment of new universities or targeted professional schools (e.g. Al Faisal University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and Singapore Management University,)
  • Twinning models where new universities partner with well established institutions (e.g. Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan partnering with University College London and a number of other universities including University of Wisconsin, iCarnegie and Duke University)
  • Multi-country university models (e.g. University of Central Asia)
  • Restructuring and/or upgrading of existing universities (e.g. University of the United Arab Emirates, University of Tripoli)
  • Universities emphasizing online delivery (e.g. DeVry University, Western Governors University)

The range and variety of approaches suggest that the world can expect new models of education and perhaps a shift in focus within higher education from models that have changed very little over decades or centuries. Disappointingly, this seems to be seldom true.  Many of the new initiatives are explanted from existing institutions without regard to the new culture or context in which they will operate.  Furthermore, new universities often aspire to achieve the status of “world class” in unrealistic time frames – a status that has taken centuries to reach for the rarified few that ever achieve it.  In fact, the notion of “world class” in universities was perhaps best summarized by Altbach: “everyone wants one, no one knows what it is, and no one knows how to get one” (The Costs and Benefits of World Class Universities, Academe 90, Jan-Feb 2004).

Universities are old organizations that have evolved slowly through history.  We can learn a lot about what works and what does not from looking at that history.  But then, we must add into the mix new realities from our fast-paced modern world.  Among many considerations, two are of prime importance.  First, expectations of consumers have shifted.  Second, higher education has become a business that is subjected to the same market forces and performance/management demands as any other business.

As we seek to identify the elements to which governments, institutional leaders and investors must attend, two recent reports are worthy of note:

  1. The Challenge of Establishing World Class Universities, Jamil Salmi, World Bank 2010.  This report addresses the preoccupation with university rankings and identifies three main features of universities that have transcended national or regional status and risen to become internationally elite. These are:
  • Concentration of talent
  • Abundance of resources
  • Favorable governance.
  1. Winning by degrees: the strategies of highly productive higher-education institutions, McKinsey & Co. 2010.  This report examines how new universities in the USA which focus on education are increasing their productivity, reducing cost and maintaining quality.  Key factors include:
  • Systematically enabling completion of degrees by maximal number of matriculants
  • Reduction of non-productive credits
  • Redesign of delivery of instruction to increase uniformity and reproducibility across courses and disciplines
  • Redesign of core support services such as HR, IT and financial services
  • Optimization of non core services and other operations including research, controlled entities and services such as dining facilities which can be outsourced.

These reports identify some of the factors on which governments, institutions and investors must focus as the pace of developing or reforming higher education institutions accelerates.

From experience in the field as I have provided advisory services in higher education around the world and observed developments in many countries and institution, it seems there are eight key elements that deserve sharp focus when embarking upon developing a new university or seriously reforming an existing institution:

A clear sense of purpose for the university

Will the university emphasize teaching/learning, research or both? At which market and type of student will the institution aim? Which aspect of public interest will the university serve?

Focus of scholarship in the university

Will the emphasis be on liberal arts and humanities, engineering and technical sciences and/or professional disciplines such as medicine and law?  In the case of a planned comprehensive university, this does not mean that the institution will not teach in areas where research is not emphasized.  However, it is simply not possible to invest sufficient resources in research in all areas to be competitive.

Strong emphasis on high quality of pedagogy

The nascent university must put in place the mechanisms to ensure the highest standards of teaching and learning from the outset. Faculty development is a key component along with a shift of mindset from an emphasis on teachers and teaching to a more contemporary ethos of attention to learners and learning.  This shift presents considerable challenges in some cultures where the authority of the teacher is highly regarded and students expect to be passively taught rather than developing the skills for life-long learning so needed in a post-modern dynamic world.


New or reforming universities should strive to identify at least some elements where they can be truly innovative and differentiate themselves from others.  There are substantial opportunities for creativity in program development in contexts and cultures with rich non-Western traditions.   There are some particularly good examples emerging in Islamic countries for instance where new design approaches to buildings are permitting more integration of men and women on campus while respecting the traditional social mores.

Building a community of learning and discovery

Many students remember their student days with a strong sense of belonging to a community that endures throughout life.  Today, the challenge is to create new models of engagement with the university/college community which extend into virtual as well as physical spaces.

Good Governance

Perhaps the most important aspects of establishing or redesigning a university are the formal and informal vehicles that allow decisions to be made efficiently and orderly sustainable progress to happen.  These elements make up the governance of the institution.  Good governance is not the only condition needed to establish a good university but it is certainly a necessary one.

There are many variations on how good governance can operate, which are largely dependent upon how involved governments are and how much autonomy is afforded to the institution to design and run its own affairs.  Nonetheless, there are some elements that should be universal.  These include:

  • Good corporate governance with clear roles and responsibilities defined between the Board and the executive leadership
  • Clearly delegated rights and responsibilities from a ministry, sponsoring authority or investors
  • Academic freedom
  • Shared governance between the management and the academic faculty
  • Commitment to merit-based selection of faculty, leadership, administrators and students
  • Strong sense of accountability from the institution to its sponsors (whether public or private)
  • Regular cycles of review and program evaluation to ensure maintenance of standards

Effective leadership and management

Launching or revamping a university requires an extraordinary combination of leadership and management skills.  The roles are different.  Leaders must lead and delegate to others the tasks of managing implementation.  The skills required include not only a strong and structured planning outlook but also a preparedness to adapt and chart a path through complex issues that inevitably arise and require a change from the original pathway.

Sufficient resources

There must be a clear sense understanding of the initial capital requirement as well as a disciplined approach to understanding the financial and other resources required to sustain the institution in the long term.